Marooned: Transgender Asylum Seekers in Johannesburg

Camminga, B. (2020) Marooned: Transgender Asylum Seekers in Johannesburg. In: Nicky Falkoff & Cobus Van Staden (eds.). Anxious in Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City. Wits University Press. pp. 187–207.

For transgender people who journey to South Africa from other parts of the continent, the country is synonymous with safety, possibility and protection. Two primary cities or sites structure this notion of safety — Cape Town and Johannesburg. The former maintains a prominent place within the global queer imaginary as the African continents, not uncontroversial, ‘gay capital’. In contrast, the latter maintains an identity as a ‘World Class African City’ and economic hub. As a country of asylum, South Africa does not practice encampment but rather a system of local integration, meaning that asylum seekers, entering the country, experience freedom of movement. In recent years, however, owing to changes in asylum policy in South Africa, moving to Cape Town, a city which sells itself as for those who are ‘out and proud’, has become difficult if not impossible. These policy shifts have left many with little option but to remain in Johannesburg.

In this chapter, drawing on research work begun with transgender refugees in 2012, the author unpacks what it may mean for transgender people, who can no longer move directly to Cape Town, to have to stay in Johannesburg. This is a city which, given the density of migrants from all over the continent and beyond, the lack of trans-specific support structures and high rates of criminality, is often punitively experienced by those considered socio-economically weak or less able to defend themselves.

Being ‘marooned’ in Johannesburg can leave transgender refugees deeply fearful, anxious and apprehensive. This chapter considers the socio-spatial relations that affect migrants in Johannesburg, in particular the impact of the generalised anxiety over economic migrants and what this has meant for transgender people who seek asylum in South Africa. It argues that the system of asylum, as it is currently managed in South Africa, induces particular kinds of anxiety for transgender asylum seekers directly linked to their status as both transgender people and migrants marooned in a city that is profoundly unwelcoming and unable to support them.

About B Camminga

B Camminga (*they) joined the African Centre for Migration & Society as a Postdoctoral Researcher in 2018.

B's previous work tracked the conceptual journeying of the term ‘transgender’ from the Global North along with the physically embodied journeying of transgender asylum seekers from countries within Africa to South Africa and considered the interrelationships between the two.

Their research interests include rights, migration, asylum and diaspora as they relate to transgender people from the African continent; the bureaucratisation of gender in relation to transgender bodies and asylum regimes globally; possibilities for mobility and migration of transgender identified people from, across and within the African region and the history of ‘trans phenomena’ in South Africa.